ARCHIVE: Brighton Bar Rewrites the Memoir

DownloadedFile-1The Brighton Bar, our CBGB and a landmark where alt-culture art meets package-goods populism.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit February 4, 2009)

The Brighton Bar! For more than a generation, it’s been our own local Shoreguy version of CBGB; a nexus of nurture and nutty nature for the sorts of things that occur well below the scan of cultural radar. Better than CBGB, in fact, since the unassuming velveeta-box in Long Branch’s West End continues to throb with life and industry.

The Brighton was the area’s sole consistent source of original rock music and other offbeat entertainments, back in the age when cover-band dinosaurs ruled the earth. It’s one of the few neighborhood joints on the planet that successfully transitioned to hepster-hangout status, without compromising its “working” class, package-goods bonafides. And its rep as a spawning ground of scenes and sounds puts the reality-check hammer to all others, up to and including the preciously revered Upstage.

None of which is to suggest that the “b-RIGHT-on” is ready to be relegated to some waxworks Hall of Fame. Rumors of its demise, which for a while there seemed to kick up every few years, were as exaggerated as the historical hoohah surrounding the Stone Pony. The place has survived, with occasional refurbishing and near-constant experimentation, long beyond the lifespans of such Jersey monuments as Bloomfield’s Dirt Club, the Pipeline in Newark, Asbury’s Fast Lane and Trenton’s City Gardens — about which more in a moment.

Few would argue against the assertion that the Brighton Bar’s consistency and staying power, even throughout several changes in ownership since the early 1980s, has been the province of one larger-than-life character — Jack Monahan; fateful frontman, postpunk poet, band bookie and the man whose look was copped wholesale by record-industry guru Rick Rubin.

JackoA member of what could arguably be described as Monmouth County’s vanguard first-wave punk band (Da-Works) in the late 1970s, Monahan by the early 1980s was barking his politically charged polemic at the front of Fatal Rage, the fondly recalled hardcore unit that lorded over a small but fervently followed scene that stretched from Belmar to the Bayshore. Looking around for venues that would consent to host some multi-band hardcore hootenannies, Monahan arrived at the smoky little Brighton Avenue dive — home then to semi-employed beach burnouts, bikeless bikers and aging Asbury acts like Paul Whistler and George Theiss. In between wrangling the more enthusiastic moshers away from prized pool tables and glass bottles, the rookie booking agent assisted in organizing one local punk nite, then another, and another…the rest, as they say, is big-beat history.

As editor of the local music rag PIPELINE, this correspondent had a ringside seat for the bar’s gradual evolution during the 1980s. There would come a day when things like career, marriage, fatherhood would keep us away from the old place for major slabs of time — earning us a textbook lecture/sermon from Jack on how we were guilty of “not supporting the scene.” Through it all, in and out of later band projects like Dirge and Acoublack Squack, Monahan maintained his post at the door; importing the latest vanload of outta-towners from Lebanon PA, filling up five or six nights of live entertainment each week, making fistfuls of friends and enemies, and becoming the Tolkien-bearded face of the Brighton without ever having had an ownership stake in the place. No one but no one has been more passionate about the cause of new original music around these parts.

Fatal Rage was one of a stable of NJ bands who recorded for the now-legendaryMutha Records imprint; a low-budget enterprise run by elder-statesman scenester Mark “The Mutha” Chesley from his West Long Branch bedroom. A labelmate band was “Cutest Band in Hardcore” The Chronic Sick, and it was former Sick frontman (turned high school history teacher) Greg “Gory” Macolino who, with Jim Connelly, assumed control of the Brighton about ten years ago. Recently, Macolino approached veteran booking agent and radio personality Randy “Now” Ellis to take on a few of the weekend nights at the BB; a move that seeks to alter the bar’s traditional vibe to a small degree, while stirring up the expected volume of rift and rumor. Red Bank oRBit looked in on things a few nights back.

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Brighton Bar owner Greg Macolino , a/k/a“Greg Gory” from “Cutest Band in Hardcore” The Chronic Sick, with blues guitar founding father Hubert Sumlin.

Ellis and his wife were among the people gathered to watch the Red Bank-based Ribeye Brothers and Full of Fancy rock da house last Friday, a night graced with the usual amount of socializing among what is now at least two distinct generations of Brighton barflys. With Monahan conspicuous in his absence, a grinning Macolino — who absolutely comes across as a guy living his dream — played the gracious host. If you haven’t made the trek to the Brighton since the 1990s, you’ll note that under Macolino’s stewardship the old place has never been cleaner (crud apparently equalled cred back in the day) or more maximized for space. And, we’ve got to admit, since the statewide smoking ban came down, the room is downright breathable in a way that its old tobacco-curing-shed self could never be.

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Then there’s The Wall. Not so much a Berlin Wall or a Wailing Wall as something akin to the Vietnam Memorial; a mural-size display (painted by Dave De Santis in the style of the old PIPELINE ads) of all the fallen/forgotten bands who passed this way back in the 80s, 90s and early millennium. Old Mutha acts like Secret Syde and Public Disturbance blend with Reagan-era blips (does anyone else rememberJ’zzing?) into the age of Daisycutter and Big Nurse, as the club became a testing range for the projects that would coalesce into the international rock phenom known ultimately as Monster Magnet. There are cameos from members of Alice Cooperand the New York Dolls; latter-day visits by punk godfathers The Dictators and The Damned. Eyes are still drawn to the wall; people practically reach out and do reverent pencil-tracings of the names.

Up on the barside blackboard appear some different names; former Stern stooge Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling (March 13) and Jersey’s legendary clown prince of video vaudeville Uncle Floyd Vivino (May 15). The veteran entertainers are among the acts being experimented with by Ellis, who in his long tenure booking the aforementioned City Gardens, claims to have brought some 4000 bands to that unlikely rock oasis in the state capital (and employed one Jon Stewart as a bartender for about five years). The fellow refugee of Jersey’s free-falling newspaper biz (he recently lost his longtime job with the Trenton Times) helped secure the services of the everlovin’ Fleshtones late last year, and plans are afoot to bring in acts ranging from larval Beatle Pete Best to folk-dynasty dame Kate Taylor. Deferring to Monahan’s hard-earned expertise with the local talent pool, Bordentown resident Ellis has committed to keeping a semi-regular schedule of a handful of bookings each month.

As the website for his Company Jack Productions attests, Monahan remains very much in the thick of things, with sets by veteran Brighton barnstormers Atomic Bitchwax (2/27), The Sex Zombies (2/6) and tri-state metal legend Thor (2/14) among the coming attractions. Tonight, it’s the return of a uniquely Monahan feature — the monthly Poetry Show, in which Jacko plays ringmaster to a superior salon of quirky literary voices that includes lifers Gregg GloryDan WeeksChris OehmeGregory Schwartz and Kathy Polenberg, who’s got some kind of mutual admiration society going on with oRBit.

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing of the upcoming shows is one that was apparently assembled by Mr. Mac himself — a February 28 date in which the legendary New York punk band Kraut returns, augmented by the reunion of the original, 1983 lineup of The Chronic Sick. Macolino/Gory takes the stage with the surely still-cute lineup of Arnie BarrsBobby the K and JoJo Albano for a taste of the stuff that’s made their first Mutha release a “holy grail of punk rock LPs” said to fetch $1500 a copy (although when we sold ours to Red Bank Rob, we didn’t get anywhere near that).

All in all, an interesting period for the Brighton and a time in which budget-conscious Bar buffs have a wealth of diversions to choose from. As to the future direction of the venerable venue, there are usually as many opinions as there are people in the building at any time — such as when longtime Brighton booster Gina McLaughlin conveyed the unsolicited advice that “they should make this more of a lounge…people like to sit down, hang out and feel comfortable.”

For his part, Jim Norton — not the skinhead slobbo standup comic, but the sage soundman and sublime pseudo-straightedge of Crucial Youth fame — offered a pithy assessment.

“Mister Macolino, tear down this wall,” he said, indicating the display of los deseparecidos. “This place should be all about the future, and not the past.”